Seventy-five years ago, word came to Athens in the darkest of the night that Operation Overlord was underway.
Eight blasts of the siren at the fire station and sirens on police cars alerted residents of the small East Texas city that something big was happening half-a-world away.
“Having served two years in Vietnam and earned a combat infantryman's badge, I understand to a degree the accomplishment of the men who landed at Utah and Omaha on D-Day,” said Athens Veterans of Foreign Wars Post Commander Bill Malone. “I am in absolute, total awe of the bravery of the men that left those Higgins boats and charged ashore.”
The June 8, 1944, the Athens Review reported that after hearing the news, many Athenians went to their churches for prayer and meditation. Others “switched on their radios, and listened to the first news accounts of the massive military undertaking.”
In 1994, fifty years after the battle, John Flynn of Athens recalled crossing the English Channel, spiked with German mines.
“There were so many obstacles, you could not believe any human being could ever get on that shore,” Flynn said.
Malone said the forces that crossed the water were met with some of the war's most intense opposition.
“They were fighting for freedom, but also, just to stay alive and do a job,” Malone said. “That's what The American soldier does. We go where our leaders tell us to go and do the job to the best of our ability.”
During the entire battle of Normandy the death toll for the Allies was nearly 37,000 among the ground forces and more than 16,000 of the air forces.
“It has been said by Stephen Ambrose in his book on D-Day and the American soldier, that it wasn't the generals, the colonels, officers or even the senior non-commissioned officers that won the battle. It was the individual soldiers that made the decision, 'We will not die on this beach,'” Malone said. “It took super-human strength to do that thing.”
Frank Denius, who grew up in Athens, was in the 230th Artillery that landed on Omaha Beach, one day after D-Day. Decades later, Denius recalled his wartime experiences in a book, telling of the march through Europe. He became one of the 10 most decorated soldiers in the European Theater. Denius was twice wounded, once at Normandy, and again at the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded two Purple Hearts for his injuries.
Malone said actor Sam Elliott paid a moving tribute to D-Day survivor Sgt. Ray Lambert during the 2019 Memorial Day Concert. Elliott, speaking the words of Lambert, described the scene that greeted the soldiers who defied German machine guns and artillery to gain a foothold on the beach.
"It was total confusion. Shells exploding, boats blowing up, people yelling because they couldn't hear anything, machine gun bullets hitting the water all around you, the roar of the boats coming in. It's like you're all alone in the world of a million people because you're concentrating on what you have to do."
Malone said the 29th division, which figured prominently in the assault was getting its first taste of battle.
“They were an untested division,” Malone said. “One commander said one of the reasons they picked the 29th is they had not known fear yet.”
Malone said for the veterans of the assaults on Utah and Omaha beach the memories of the distant battle have never truly gone away and rest of us mustn't allow the memory of that accomplishment to fade into history.
“Are we going to forget that and have to learn a very valuable lesson once again?,” Malone asked.